The law IS an ass

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Christoff Becker leaves the Department of Correctional Services offices after being formally released on parole. Only days later he and Frikkie du Preez were rearrested. Picture: Phill Magakoe

Why were we surprised the Waterkloof Four had it easy? Other examples are too many to enumerate, says Makhudu Sefara.

Johannesburg - Many credit Charles Dickens for the phrase “the law is an ass”, contained in his second novel Oliver Twist, published in 1838. Others say dramatist George Chapman first recorded this in 1654 in a play titled Revenge for Honour.

But what does it matter? Is the law indeed an ass?

Following the French revolution, what initially was considered the “general will” of the people was used to justify state-sanctioned bloodshed and terror.

Jean Jacques Rousseau, by many accounts a troubled philosopher, wrote at length about the social pact that exists between the leaders and the led. He says government by the people isn’t feasible because people cannot always be assembled and seized with public affairs.

But, he counsels, “each of us put his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole”.

When one goes against the general will of the people, this results in much opprobrium, as seen in the past week following the release of the so-called Waterkloof Four and the re-arrest of two of them.

When they were released, many decried the fact that it appeared so soon after they killed a destitute, unknown man, who was wandering on the side of the road.

They decried the fact that these young men appeared to have had it easy in jail, pumping iron rather than being made to suffer for their wrongs. Many decried the fact that they were laughing and celebrating their release on noisy bikes.

And when evidence surfaced that two of these – Frikkie du Preez and Christoff Becker – had had a jailhouse pre-release party, their re-arrest was met with much aplomb and celebration by members of the public. That they had access to cellphones, computers and alcohol, just added to public anger.

Why?

People felt their own will, and norms, were trampled upon not just by the four, but by those who helped them enjoy their stay in prison. Even before we knew the law was broken, many felt rubbed up the wrong way – muscle T-shirts and all. Society’s “general will” was violated. Their actions were an affront to our sensibilities, even when they were not acting illegally. “Man is born free,” says Rousseau, “and everywhere he is in chains.”

But why were we surprised that they had it easy?

Remember one Andrew Babeile, a pupil from North West who stabbed a fellow white learner, Christoffel Erasmus? Babeile was sentenced to three years in prison.

Babeile deserved to be punished for what he did but, in the end, he merely stabbed someone using scissors. His victim could have died, but he did not. Meanwhile, Bees Roux, a big scary white guy, a famous rugby player, killed black traffic officer Sergeant Johannes Mogale. What happened there after?

Roux continued to play rugby. He paid the Mogale family R750 000 ostensibly for the family’s loss of income. For Mogale’s death, Roux got away without doing time in jail. What does that tell you about our law, its application and black people’s worth?

Again, take the so-called lion murder case. One Mark Scott-Crossley, Simon Mathebula and Richard “Doctor” Mathebula, not related, were found guilty of the killing of Nelson Chisale who, it was reported, was thrown into a lions’ camp at the Mokwalo White Lions Project.

It was apparent that Scott-Crossley was the mastermind who instructed his minions to commit the crime. They were all sentenced to life, but Scott-Crossley’s was reduced to five years for being an accessory to murder.

He was, like the Waterkloof Four, released on parole. Simon Mathebula remains jailed while Richard Mathebula got sick and died in prison. No parole for him. While in this case the minions got punished for their actions, in the Jackie Selebi fraud and corruption case, prosecutors prioritised punishing the kingpin – Selebi – while leaving hardcore criminals who killed Brett Kebble and drug lords like Glenn Agliotti walking the streets. Where the minions in the lion murder case are punished, they happen to be black and the mastermind white. Where prosecutors chose to target the kingpin in the Selebi case, he too just happens to be black.

Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.

Even when you want to dismiss Julius Malema as politicking when he says his bail is set much higher than Steve Hofmeyr, when they have essentially committed a similar offence of driving over the limit, it becomes almost impossible to. The examples are too many to enumerate.

In Oliver Twist, Mr Bumble is quoted as saying: “If the law supposes that, the law is an ass – a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience – by experience.”

In truth, Du Preez and Becker did not suborn the correctional system – they merely used their positions of privilege to enjoy benefits not due to them.

They may not know Bees Roux, Mark Scott-Crossley, Glenn Agliotti or even Steve Hofmeyr, but they, like these, enjoy a special place accorded them by apartheid history. They might think Rousseau’s words “man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”, apply only to Mr Bumble, the Mathebulas, Mogales, Babeile and others but themselves.

In truth, they too need help. If indeed Becker and Du Preez partied as depicted in videos, the weight of the chains will be with them long after they have been released – even if they serve the full 12-year sentence for the killing of that poor, homeless man.

But our law’s eye needs to be opened by experience, to use Mr Bumble’s words, so that no will other than the general will of the people may reign in our land.

* Makhudu Sefara is editor of The Star. Follow him on Twitter @Sefara_Mak

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